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Facts on Desertification

A Summary of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Desertification Synthesis

DESERTIFICATION is the persistent degradation of

dryland ecosystems. It threatens the livelihoods of some
of the poorest and most vulnerable populations on the
planet. Desertification is largely caused by unsustainable
use of scarce resources. What options exist to avoid or
reverse desertification and its negative impacts?
Summary written by GreenFacts
What is desertification?
Desertification is the persistent degradation of dryland ecosystems by
variations in climate and human activities. Home to a third of the human
population in 2000, drylands occupy nearly half of Earth’s land area.
Across the world, desertification affects the livelihoods of millions of
people who rely on the benefits that dryland ecosystems can provide.

In drylands, water scarcity limits the production of crops, forage, wood,

and other services ecosystems provide to humans. Drylands are therefore
highly vulnerable to increases in human pressures and climatic variability,
especially sub-Saharan and Central Asian drylands.

Some 10 to 20% of drylands are already degraded, and ongoing

desertification threatens the world’s poorest populations and the
prospects of poverty reduction. Therefore, desertification is one of the
greatest environmental challenges today and a major barrier to meeting
basic human needs in drylands.
Desertification affects the world’s most vulnerable populations.

How are desertification and human well-being linked?

In drylands, more people depend on ecosystem services for their basic needs Desertification affects a wide range of services provided by ecosystems to
than in any other ecosystem. Indeed, many of their resources, such as crops, humans: products such as food and water, natural processes such as
livestock, fuelwood, and construction materials, depend on the growth of climate regulation, but also non-material services such as recreation, and
plants, which in turn depends on water availability and climate conditions. supporting services such as soil conservation. Changes can be quantified
and methods are available to prevent, reduce, or reverse them.
Fluctuations in the services supplied by ecosystems are normal,
especially in drylands, where water supply is irregular and scarce. When faced with desertification, people often respond by making use of
However, when a dryland ecosystem is no longer capable to recover from land that is even less productive, transforming pieces of rangeland into
previous pressures, a downward spiral of desertification may follow, cultivated land, or moving towards cities or even to other countries. This
though it is not inevitable. can lead to unsustainable agricultural practices, further land degradation,
exacerbated urban sprawl, and socio-political problems.

Who is affected by desertification?

Desertification affects the livelihoods of millions of people, as it occurs
on all continents (except Antarctica).

Desertification takes place in drylands all over the world. Some 10 to 20%
of all drylands may already be degraded, but the precise extent of
desertification is difficult to estimate, because few comprehensive
assessments have been made so far.

A large majority of dryland populations live in developing countries.

Compared to the rest of the world, these populations lag far behind in
terms of human well-being, per capita income, and infant mortality. The
situation is worst in the drylands of Asia and Africa. Dryland populations
are often marginalized and unable to play a role in decision making
processes that affect their well-being, making them even more vulnerable.

Desertification has environmental impacts that go beyond the areas

directly affected. For instance, loss of vegetation can increase the
formation of large dust clouds that can cause health problems in more Desertification processes can lead to the formation of large dust clouds
densely populated areas, thousands of kilometers away. Moreover, the that affect air quality and cause health problems thousands of kilometres
social and political impacts of desertification also reach non-dryland away (Xinlinhot, China)
areas. For example, human migrations from drylands to cities and other
countries can harm political and economic stability.
What are the major causes of desertification?
Desertification is caused by a combination of social, political,
economic, and natural factors which vary from region to region.

Policies that can lead to an unsustainable use of resources and lack of

infrastructures are major contributors to land degradation. Agriculture
can play either a positive or a negative role, depending on how it is
managed. Policies favoring sedentary farming over nomadic herding in
regions more suited to grazing can contribute to desertification.

The process of globalization both contributes to desertification and helps

prevent it. Studies have shown that, in some cases, trade liberalization,
economic reforms, and export-oriented production in drylands can
promote desertification. In other cases, enlarged markets outside of the
drylands also contribute to successful agricultural improvements. Serious erosion is threatening a farmer’s land
Historically, dryland livelihoods have been based on a mixture of hunting, use. Population growth has led to the extension of cultivated lands and
gathering, farming, and herding. This mixture varied with time, place, and the irrigation of these lands has brought about desertification, as well as
culture, since the harsh conditions forced people to be flexible in land other environmental problems.

How would different development paths influence desertification in the future?

Population growth and increased food demand are expected to drive continue to be the main factors driving desertification in the near future,
the expansion and intensification of land cultivation in drylands. If no and climate change will also play a role.
countermeasures are taken, desertification in drylands will threaten
future improvements in human well-being and possibly reverse gains in Local adaptation and conservation practices can mitigate some losses of
some regions. dryland services, but it will be difficult to reverse losses in terms of
biodiversity and in the provision of food and water which is linked to
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment developed four plausible biodiversity. Freshwater scarcity, which already affects 1-2 billion people
scenarios to explore the future of desertification and human well-being globally, is expected to increase, causing greater stresses in drylands
until 2050 and beyond. The different scenarios are based on either and ultimately a worsening of desertification.
increased globalization or increased regionalization, each combined with
either a reactive or proactive way of addressing environmental issues. The implementation of the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification
(UNCCD) would be particularly difficult in a regionalized-reactive world (Order
In all four scenarios, the desertified area is expected to increase, though from strength scenario), while prospects would improve in a more globalized
not at the same pace. Poverty and unsustainable land use practices will world with proactive ecosystem management (TechnoGarden scenario).

Map: “Present-day Drylands and their categories

How can we prevent or reverse desertification?
Effective prevention of desertification requires management and policy
approaches that promote sustainable resource use. Prevention should
be preferred to rehabilitation, which is difficult and costly.

Major policy interventions and changes in management approaches,

both at local and global levels, are needed in order to prevent, stop or
reverse desertification. Prevention is a lot more cost-effective than
rehabilitation, and this should be taken into account in policy decisions.
Addressing desertification is critical and essential to meeting the
Millennium Development Goals which aim to eradicate extreme poverty
and ensure environmental sustainability amongst other objectives.

The creation of a “culture of prevention” that promotes alternative

livelihoods and conservation strategies can go a long way toward
protecting drylands both when desertification is just beginning and when Unsustainable use of resources can contribute to land-degradation.
it is ongoing. It requires a change in governments’ and peoples’ Even once land has been degraded, rehabilitation and restoration
attitudes. Building on long-term experience and active innovation, measures can help restore lost ecosystem services. The success of
dryland populations can prevent desertification by improving agricultural rehabilitation practices depends on the availability of human resources,
and grazing practices in a sustainable way. funds, and infrastructures. It requires a combination of policies and
technologies and the close involvement of local communities.

Is there a link between desertification, global climate change, and biodiversity loss?
Desertification diminishes biological diversity, a diversity which
contributes to many of the services provided to humans by dryland
ecosystems. Vegetation and its diversity are key for soil conservation and
for the regulation of surface water and local climate. Desertification also
contributes to global climate change by releasing to the atmosphere
carbon stored in dryland vegetation and soils.

The effect of global climate change on desertification is complex and not

yet sufficiently understood. On the one hand, higher temperatures
resulting from increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels can have a negative
impact through increased loss of water from soil and reduced rainfall in
drylands. On the other hand, for certain species, an increase in carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere can boost plant growth.

Environmental management approaches for combating desertification,

conserving biodiversity, and mitigating climate change are linked in many
ways, thus a joint implementation of the U.N. Conventions to Combat
Water-erosion and reduced soil conservation negatively affects ecosys-
Desertification, on Biological Diversity, and on Climate Change can yield
tem services
multiple benefits.

How can we better understand desertification?

Scientifically robust and consistent information about the extent of land Uncertainties remain about the way various biological, physical, social,
degradation is important when it comes to identifying priorities and and economic factors interact, which limits our ability to assess the actual
monitoring the consequences of actions. effect of policies on desertification. Among other things, the impact of
poverty reduction strategies on ecosystem services and desertification
Previous assessments had diverse shortcomings that made them has not yet been fully explored. The impact of cities in dryland areas also
unreliable. Remote sensing and long term monitoring are needed to has to be evaluated, since they may both increase and relieve pressures
better understand desertification processes and determine the extent of on desertified areas.
desertification. Additionally, to better comprehend the impacts of
desertification on human well-being we need to improve our knowledge
of the interactions between socioeconomic factors and changing
ecosystem conditions.
Conclusion: Main findings

Finding 1. Desertification poses one of the greatest environmental challenges today and constitutes a major barrier to
meeting basic human needs in drylands.

Finding 2. Desertification is land degradation in drylands that affects biological productivity as well as the livelihoods
of millions of people. It is caused by a combination of human and natural factors that contribute to an
unsustainable use of scarce natural resources.

Finding 3. Some 10 to 20% of drylands are already degraded, and the ongoing desertification threatens the world’s
poorest populations. Various scenarios that explore the future of desertification and human well-being in
drylands show that global desertified area is likely to increase. Prevention is the most effective way to cope
with desertification, because later attempts to rehabilitate desertified areas are costly and tend to deliver
limited results. Combating desertification yields multiple local and global benefits and helps fight
biodiversity loss and global climate change.

Finding 4. Efforts to reduce pressures on dryland ecosystems need to go hand in hand with efforts to reduce poverty
as both are closely linked. Effectively fighting desertification will help reduce global poverty and will
contribute to meeting the Millennium Development Goals.


Desertification – The persistent degradation of boundaries; a single lake, a watershed, or ease control; cultural services such as spiri-
dryland ecosystems by variations in climate an entire region could be considered an tual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and
and human activities. It results in a reduc- ecosystem. supporting services such as nutrient cycling
tion or loss of the biological or economic that maintain the conditions for life on
productivity of drylands. Ecosystem management – An approach to nat- Earth.
ural resource management which aims to
Dryland ecosystems – Drylands are ecosys- sustain ecosystems in order to meet both Productivity – In biology, productivity is a
tems caracterised by lack of water, which ecological and human needs in the future. measure of the efficiency with which a bio-
constrains the production of crops, forage, Such ecosystem management can be “reac- logical system converts energy into growth.
wood, and other ecosystem services. tive” and address problems only after they
Drylands include cultivated lands, scrub- become obvious or “proactive” and actively Sustainability – Meeting the needs of the pres-
lands, grasslands, savannas, semi-deserts seek long-term maintenance of ecosystem ent and local population without compro-
and true deserts. services. mising the ability of future generations or
populations in other locations to meet their
Ecosystem – A complex system of interactions Ecosystem services – The benefits people needs. An ecosystem is used sustainably if it
between living communities (plants, animal, obtain from ecosystems. These include pro- yields benefits to present generations while
fungi, and microorganisms) and the environ- visioning services such as food and water; maintaining its potential to meet the needs
ment they live in. Ecosystems have no fixed regulating services such as flood and dis- and aspirations of future generations.
Facts on this publication
This publication presents a faithful summary by GreenFacts of the Desertification Synthesis Report, one of the leading scientific consensus
reports produced in 2005 by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA): Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Desertification Synthesis.

The Millennium Assessment was launched by UN secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001 to provide scientific information concerning the
consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and options for responding to those changes. It involved over 1300 scientists from
95 countries and a partnership among several international organizations, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Convention
to Combat Desertification, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Convention on Migratory Species, five UN agencies, the World Bank, and IUCN.

The Desertification Synthesis Report, one of the main products of this work, provides an overview of the links between desertification
and the unsustainable use of resources. The full report is available on:

A more detailed summary can be found on in English, French, and Spanish.

This publication was produced by:

GreenFacts is an independent non-profit organisation that publishes faithful online summaries of scientific
consensus documents produced by international bodies such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment or the
World Health Organization. | | Tel: +32 (0)2 2113488

In collaboration with:
Countdown 2010 collaborates closely with countries, regions, and civil society to help governments reduce biodiversity
loss by 2010. At the World Summit for Sustainable Development and other occasions, world leaders committed to
achieve this 2010 biodiversity target and meet the challenges outlined in this report. | | Tel: +32 (0)2 739 0320

The Environment Directorate-General of the European Commission initiates and defines new environmental legislation
and ensures that agreed measures are put into practice in the EU Member States. Its mission is to protect, preserve
and improve the environment for present and future generations, and to promote sustainable development.

The Global Mechanism is a subsidiary body of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. As one of the
partners in Convention implementation, it provides a range of specialized financial advisory services to the Parties,

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with the aim of increasing development finance for poverty reduction by promoting sustainable land management.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is part of the Swiss Federal Government for Foreign
Affairs. Its main objectives are to improve access to education and basic health care, to promote environmental
health, to encourage economic and governmental autonomy, and to improve equity in labor.

Concept & layout: beëlzePub
TerrAfrica is a partnership that aims to address land degradation by scaling up harmonized support for effective and
efficient country-driven Sustainable Land Management (SLM) practices in sub-Saharan African countries.

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Secretariat services the Conference of the Parties and its
subsidiary bodies. In doing so, it ensures public awareness on desertification and facilitates the implementation
process by liaising with core convention constituencies, mainly Parties, institutional partners and civil society.

The World Bank is a vital source of financial and technical assistance to developing countries around the world. With the
Editeur responsable: Jacques de Selliers

aim to reduce global poverty and improve living standards, the World Bank provides low-interest loans, interest-free credit
and grants to developing countries for education, health, infrastructure, communications and many other purposes.
The World Bank

Founded in 1948, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) brings together States, government agencies and a diverse range
of non-governmental organizations in a unique world partnership: over 1000 members in all, spread across some 140
countries. As a Union, IUCN seeks to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the
integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.

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Cover Picture by Martin van Triest, other pictures© Millennium Ecosystem Assessment